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Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Tulsa Race Riot and the Culture of Oil

Via Brad DeLong, a post in the Financial Times about the Tulsa race riot of 1921: Burnt Offerings:

Otis Granville Clark is a wonder. At 102, the former butler of Joan Crawford - who served Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin - still drives, lives on his own and twice a week attends church in his home city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has been a church-goer for decades, ever since he heard the call and, surprising Crawford and himself, became an evangelist preacher. Today his blue eyes have gone milky but they still sparkle, his wiry frame remains agile, and his most painful memories are still fresh - even after 83 years.

Coiled on the edge of an understuffed sofa, Clark leans back and screws his eyes tight to summon up "that day". It remains the most vivid of his life. "That was the day I saw blood," he says. He was a young black man of 18, scarcely aware of the world beyond his neighbourhood on that warm spring morning in 1921 when "the shooting and all" began.

Most days, he would have been working with the bootleggers making corn whiskey down by the Arkansas River. But that morning he had gone to a relative's funeral home, a block from the heart of the violence. He had tried to help a friend save the business's prized new acquisition, an ambulance, when "these white snipers in a mill tower started shooting from across the way. They shot wherever they could see black folks, swatting them like flies." His friend had the keys in his hand when a bullet pierced it. The blood stained Clark's shirt. "And that was before the worst of it started."

Historians call the firestorm that convulsed Tulsa from the evening of May 31 into the afternoon of June 1 the single worst event in the history of American race relations. To most Tulsans it is simply "the riot". But the carnage had nothing in common with the mass protests of Chicago, Detroit and Newark in the 1960s or the urban violence that laid siege to Los Angeles in 1992 after the white police officers who assaulted Rodney King were acquitted. The 1921 Tulsa race riot owes its name to an older American tradition, to the days when white mobs, with the consent of local authorities, dared to rid themselves of their black neighbours. The endeavour was an opportunity "to run the Negro out of Tulsa".


I never knew about the race riot until after I'd left Tulsa. One reason, I suspect, is that my family wasn't from Tulsa --- my dad grew up at various points all up and down the Ozarks, while my mom grew up on a farm in Missouri outside Kansas City before she and her mother moved into the city.

The result is that we were always (and remain) outsiders. My mother had an especially difficult time --- Tulsa was extremely cliquish, and my mother simply didn't fit in. Yet another possible reason why emerged when I was in my twenties. I'd remembered my mom telling me that, when she and my dad first married, she was unable to find them a place to live in Kansas City and someone finally told her that they don't rent to Jews.

But my mother wasn't Jewish.

In any case, one evening, I went to dinner with some fairly well-known Tulsans at a well-known restaurant. They'd begun accepting me into their fold, and so were relaxed enough to suddenly start in on "Jews." I was stunned --- I'd honestly never heard anyone talking that way before --- and it stuck with me. This same group eventually became fairly persistent in labelling me Jew.

It's important to remember that Tulsa was, at one time, Oil Capital of the World. It took me a long time to understand what was going on, but I'm now quite certain these expressions of anti-Semitism weren't simply a predictable consequence of the city's southern temperament or the cloaking of Civil War era ideologies into tidy little packages. Instead, they were the expressions of the culture of oil, the same culture that's now running this country.

The people I went to dinner with that evening were all, in one way or the other, connected to the oil business --- the children and grandchildren of oilmen or married to the heirs of small oil companies or wildcatters or whatever. They persist in the belief in their superiority, and continue cataloguing people in the strangest and most bizarre ways. Fortunately, they're no longer the only force in the city, although the heirs of the original culprits in the riots still run the local newspaper and otherwise maintain some stranglehold on power in the city.

I'm from Tulsa and I have a lot of friends there, but these people are one reason I don't live there now and will never live there again.

The article goes on: [...] Greenwood, as Clark and other survivors remember it, was a city within a city. [Greenwood and Archer is the site of the riot] "We had it all," he says, "Shops, schools, movie theatres, doctors, lawyers, newspapers - you name it."

Sixteen years earlier a vast petroleum field had been discovered nearby, and by 1921 Tulsa had become known as "the oil capital of the world". The town was awash in oil dollars, and the ascendant class of oilmen and their families needed more than domestics - they needed a service sector. Greenwood bloomed. Less than 60 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, as many as 10,000 blacks enjoyed the quiet and prosperity on the western edge of the Ozark Mountains. But Greenwood posed a challenge. "The old order would not stand much longer," wrote legal scholar Alfred Brophy in Reconstructing the Dreamland, the most recent of more than half a dozen books on the riot. "It was a culture that would not easily abide unequal treatment."

To white Tulsa, the area north of the Frisco tracks was a place where too much oil money had spilled over, sharecropper children had forgotten their stations and, most dangerously, the colour line had broken down. Among whites, Greenwood carried other names. To the grand jury it was "Coloured Town". To those who fuelled the fire, making photographs of the dead that became souvenir postcards, it was "Little Africa". And many Tulsans preferred another name, one that even appeared in the press: "Niggertown".

Today, of course, much has changed. On top of Reservoir Hill, one of Tulsa's highest points, where the Ku Klux Klan once held cross- burnings, blacks and whites now live side by side. Since the 1980s, when oil production went offshore and Houston boomed, Tulsa's downtown has resembled an urban desert. Once-proud castles of the early petroleum kings now stand vacant, covered in "For Rent" billboards.

[...]

There it is," says Otis Clark, pointing to the ground beneath his leather shoes. A block and a half away stands the one stretch of Greenwood that remains, a one-block oasis of redbrick storefronts amid the concrete flats. The shops and cafes, defiant landmarks to a lost past, went up in 1922, right after the violence. The city fought the rebuilding - a fire hazard, it was said - and no blacks won any insurance claims.

[...]

Many in Tulsa still believe the rumours of "phantom graves", that bodies lie at the bottom of the Arkansas River or in a pit on the outskirts of town. The riot commission hired Clyde Snow, a forensic anthropologist who has sifted through graves in Argentina, Guatemala, Bosnia and Iraq. A white witness had come forward, who remembered as a 10-year-old boy seeing white men digging a trench in the Oaklawn cemetery. Crates holding burned bodies had stood beside them. A crew used ground-penetrating radar to search deep in the silt, sand and clay. The geophysics revealed a "five metre square anomaly" within the area identified by the witness. The state archaeologist was sceptical, but made a final recommendation that the state "clarify the nature of this anomaly". To this day, no one has done any digging. "The powers that be kept putting it off and putting it off," says Snow.


Note: Brad DeLong actually picked this up via Crooked Timber.

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